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Central Library - from old to new

Back to the Modern - an appreciation of the Central Library as a 20th century architectural icon.
For a larger version please click on the image or on the caption.


There were many changes, and many additions, during the ninety years of the old Central Library. A new basement book store was built 1909-1910 to provide extra storage for the Reference Library. The Commercial and Patent Library was opened in Great Charles Street in 1919. Island bookcases were added in the 1920s for the Lending Library; and in 1933 further space was provided by bridging the island bookcases with steel grids, and placing additional bookcases on top.

The Council approved in principle the building of a new library in 1938, but nothing happened because of the war. The problem grew more acute every year. In 1960 the Birmingham Mail reported that the library had been designed to hold 30,000 books, but now held 750,000. Books in the basement were shelved three deep, many books in the public area could only be reached by the staff climbing very high ladders. Women staff were not allowed to wear trousers; a woman member of staff remembers that they were also not supposed to wear mini-skirts, but some of the younger ones still did!

In the 1950s and 60s many of the old buildings in the centre were demolished, for example Mason College, as better access to the centre was needed. It was finally decided to build a new library; the reason given in the John Madin Design Team Report, June 1973 was: 'The Old Central Library has to be demolished to make way for the new road construction'. The foundation stone of the new library was laid on 5th June 1970. By 1973 the main building was ready. Materials were moved across the bridge linking the old and new libraries, one section at a time. The only part of the old building to be saved was the interior of the Shakespeare Memorial Library.
Originally it had been hoped that the library would move in 1972, but this had not happened because of 'labour disputes'. In 1973 the various sections of the library moved across. 'Quick Reference and Commercial Information', on the ground floor, was the first to open. Perhaps appropriately, Local Studies and Archives were the last to leave the old building.

The new library was in use from mid 1973 onwards; the official opening was on a sunny Saturday morning in January 1974. Harold Wilson first visited the children's department, and chatted with some of the borrowers there. He then unveiled a plaque for the official opening, and gave a brief outline of the development of library services in Birmingham from 1860 onwards. He toured the building, exchanging words with some of the students and users. But he had to leave for London before the official buffet lunch reception - it was his wife Mary's 58th birthday, and he had not yet seen her that day!

The old library was finally demolished in October 1974, after the interior of the Shakespeare Memorial Library had been reconstructed in the new building.